Where the games began
On 23rd July 1948, the day when the Olympic Games began at Wembley Stadium, spinal injury patients – for the most part injured Second World War soliders – met in the gardens of Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Aylesbury, for the first ever Stoke Mandeville Games. Their doctor, Ludwig Guttmann, had battled all manner of establishment figures to stage the games, which he recognised as crucial to restoring both his patients’ health and their self-esteem. His efforts were noticed by the International Olympic Committee.
The first gold medal
The first Paralympic Games (although still called the Stoke Mandeville Games) were held a week after the Rome Olympics in 1960 in the same stadia. The athletes stayed in the same village too. Armed forces personnel had to be stationed in the accommodation blocks to carry athletes up stairs. Some 400 athletes from 23 countries competed, but with no more than three athletes or teams per event, meaning every competitor was guaranteed a medal. Margaret Maughan (above left) won Britain’s first Paralympic gold medal, for archery.
Enter the quadriplegics
1972 in Heidelberg marked a seachange for the Games: the first events for quadriplegic athletes were introduced. Now quadriplegic athletes compete in some of the star attractions, such as wheelchair rugby. Demonstration events for the visually impaired were also introduced, such as goalball, like handball but a non-contact sport, and played with a ball with a bell inside; and a 100m sprint event. Goalball is now a full Paralympic sport, and visually impaired athletes are a major component of the Games.
The cold war
The Games were moved to Arnhem, Holland in 1980 after the Soviet Union, which was hosting the Olympics in Moscow, and which might not have performed all that well in the Paralympics, refused to stage them. It was a difficult time for the Olympic movement in general, with the US and the Soviet Union boycotting each others’ games and vying for supremacy, both in the Olympics and very much elsewhere. Dr Guttman also died that year, but the ensuing decade was a successful one, in which the International Paralympic Committee was formally established.
The breakthrough games
Barcelona in 1992 was a landmark. Matches and races were played in front of packed crowds as people embraced fully the spirit of the Paralympics. Sir Philip Craven, a former wheelchair basketballer and now head of the International Paralympic Committee, has since said of them: “You know the Paralympics have crossed over into the mainstream when the crowds are shouting at the referees.” One of the now-major attractions of the games, wheelchair tennis, was introduced for the first time.
The Paralympics’ first major controversy, came in Sydney in 2000 as Spain were disqualified from the intellectual disability basketball and stripped of their gold medal. Carlos Ribagorda, a member of the victorious team and an undercover journalist, revealed that most of his colleagues had not undergone medical tests to ensure they had a disability. The IPC launched an anti-corruption drive, and suspended learning disability competitions from the Paralympics, until rigorous tests could be introduced. They are coming back this summer.
The greatest Paralympian
Tanni Grey-Thompson won a British record 11th gold medal in the 400m in Athens in 2004. The tactics of Britain’s most famous Paralympian were clear by this point: she refused to talk to other athletes on competition day, and did a “warm up lap”, which she was told unsettled her rivals. But she was eclipsed by American Trischa Zorn who, aged 40, came out of retirement to compete. She won a bronze in the 100m Backstroke S12 to bring her to 46 medals from games stretching back to 1980, including 32 golds. Zorn (above) remains the most decorated Paralympian in history.
The blade runner
South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, the blade runner, a double amputee, ran in the 100m final of the T43 category for single amputees in Beijing in 2008. He got a slow start – double amputees always do, as the traction isn’t there. With 50 metres to go he was at least 25 metres behind, but he still beat the US’s Jerome Singleton, a Nasa scientist, right on the line, in arguably the greatest Paralympic sprint race in history. The pair may well meet again in the London 100m final, alongside GB’s Jonnie Peacock, who set a new world record of 10.85 seconds earlier this year.